Denny Hamlin wishes no ill will on Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick this weekend at Talladega Superspeedway. He wants a clean race Sunday, with no outside interference, and an honest final push to the Sprint Cup championship. "You really would like to beat the guy heads-up," Hamlin said Friday. "You almost don't want anything to happen to anyone because you want to beat 'em straight-up, 10 weeks, no questions about it when you get down to Homestead."
That will, of course, depend on Sunday's race, the most anticipated of the 10 in the Chase for the Championship. Talladega is considered the "wild card" Chase race, where drivers are at the mercy of one another.
Because of the tight packs and high speeds — both Hamlin and teammate Kyle Busch posted laps at 201 mph in Friday's first practices — the race is a white-knuckle exercise in trying to avoid the slips, bumps and nudges that create multicar accidents.
Johnson, the four-time defending series champion, owns a six-point lead over Hamlin. Third is Harvick, the winner of April's race at Talladega who trails by 62 points. Harvick has had decent success at restrictor-plate races, but he takes nothing for granted.
"Obviously at this place anything can happen, whether you are leading the race or running last, you can wind up in somebody else's mess," he said. "There is a lot of strategy involved in it, and you have to have fast cars."
That strategy could include teammates as all three title contenders drive for multicar organizations.
Teammates came into play last weekend at Martinsville, where Hamlin won and Busch passed Johnson in the closing laps to take away fourth place.
"I thought when I was running around (Johnson), 'Man, this only helps me and only helps Denny if I can keep him back another spot,' " Busch said of passing Johnson at Martinsville. "Anything can help."
That same scenario can come into play at Talladega, and then some.
Because drafting is critical in plate racing, drivers must choose carefully whom they push. The Joe Gibbs Racing drivers are likely to avoid helping Johnson, just as Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing drivers will try not to push Hamlin to the win.
"Your teammates can help you on a restrictor-plate track probably more so than anywhere else," Johnson said. "I'm hopeful that my teammates will keep an eye out for me and if I need to get into a slot, will cut me some slack."
But RCR driver Jeff Burton said there's only so much organizations can do to help without jeopardizing their own efforts.
"It is very clear to all of us at RCR, if you are in a position to help your teammate, you go help them," Burton said. "But you don't do that if it is going to hurt you. … We have to go and do the very best we can for each individual team. If we don't do that, then I think we really mess with the credibility of the sport."